Territory Studio Takes UI All the Way to Mars in “The Martian”

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My husband’s 10-year plan involves applying to become an astronaut and someday traveling to Mars. His preparations at this time include obtaining a Bachelor of Science, keeping informed of NASA’s tech (and budget) advancements, and staying inspired by dutifully watching all the best near-future movies.

Yes. Movies. Like 20th Century Fox’s The Martian.

It is undeniably the wish of many, including NASA’s Dave Lavery, that movies such as this (and books, too—obviously including the eponymous best-selling novel by Andy Weir on which the movie is based) will inspire enthusiasm for both Mars and the science behind space expeditions. And if my husband is any indication, inspire, they do.

Part of the reason they’re able to inspire us so greatly is the work that goes on behind the scenes to ultimately pull viewers out of science fiction and into the possibilities of our near future, where exciting ideas and scenarios can be explored on the big screen. “What sets this story apart from many others about the exploration of outer space,” says production designer Arthur Max, “is that the entire plot is predicated on real science.”

Behind the scenes of The Martian was London’s Territory Studio, a multidisciplinary creative agency established in 2010 that touts a sizeable portfolio of UI and UX projects, including Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy and Prometheus. Territory’s graphic work can be seen on around 400 screens across 8 sets in The Martian—all of which, the studio says, “become a dynamic bridge between Earth and Mars, narrative and action, audience and characters.”


Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Working with Ridley Scott (Again)

For those of you who don’t already know, The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney’s (played by Matt Damon) against-all-odds survival after he’s stranded on Mars following NASA’s third—and aborted—manned mission to Mars. As you can imagine, UI plays a key role here, impacting how both the characters and moviegoers experience the story. Territory describes the UI in this instance as the lens through which all of the action unfolds.

Scott and Max tapped experts from NASA and the European Space Agency for input, and asked Territory to create the graphic interfaces for all screens used in the film. This includes all of the images, text, code, engineering schematics, 3D visualizations and more that show up on laptops, smartphones at NASA, screens in the habitat and in many other areas.

“At first I was a rather skeptical about having Matt Damon in a spacesuit again after seeing him in Interstellar, but as soon as I read the script I was very, very excited,” says Territory art director Marti Romances. “It’s the best ever script I have read, so I personally approached the project with lots of enthusiasm.”

Prior to The Martian, Territory creative director David Sheldon-Hicks worked with Scott and Max on Prometheus. According to the studio, Scott has high expectations but allows plenty of conceptual freedom, so the collaboration is both demanding and rewarding. And since The Martian is a film about science and technology that relies on screen graphics to help tell the story, Scott was very particular that the UI perform as strong narrative elements. So when Matt Damon stares intently at a screen, you can bet it’s as real as it gets.

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 UI: Consistency is Key 

Territory came into the project during the pre-production phase. The creatives mapped story points that could be explained or supported by screen graphics, and with input from others also developed realistic, credible graphic interface concepts.

“As always, I started conceptualizing all the different styles for each set and submitted to Ridley Scott, Arthur Max and [film studio UI art director Felicity Hickson] to [get] feedback on,” Romances says. “As soon as we got sign-off I started designing everything in Illustrator, first for NASA Mission Control, which was the biggest set.” 

The Territory team utilized detailed UI style sheets to ensure consistent visual language across each movie set. The screens in the style sheets were finalized, animated and then executed live on set for the actors to perform against. Territory designers remained on location to perform any necessary tweaks as the filming continued.


Courtesy Giles Keyte


Collaborating with NASA

In an effort to create a realistic version of a future Mars mission, Territory’s work on The Martian required an understandably high level of research and collaboration. Romances and Sheldon-Hicks worked closely with Hickson and Lavery to ensure that the highest degree of factual accuracy possible was achieved.

“There was definitely a very steep learning curve for us, trying to learn what we needed to about the feasibility and reality of the issues of space travel,” Hickson says. “It was also very important that we found ways to decipher complex ideas and transform them into a visual language that had the right degree of understanding and accessibility for an audience.”

NASA granted Territory access to a substantial amount of data, revealing to the creative team what things like form coding, satellite imagery and engineering schematics should look like.

“The greatest challenge was to create graphic interfaces that looked like they were genuine NASA screens as they will be in 30 years time,” says Romances, who worked to balance NASA’s data with Max and his team’s vision for the fictional film. “So the amount of realism was key, but we had to push the design concepts further, [visualizing] near-future technology. Knowing that NASA is always one step ahead, we had to consider the technologies that are being tested now and those that haven’t even been developed yet and imagine ways to represent information, from a user interface and experience design perspective.”

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The Experience of a Lifetime

For some, the experience of working on this film was unsurpassable.

Lavery, who’s spent many years on Mars projects, is most interested to see people’s reaction to the harsh but beautiful Martian environment, and to see whether they appreciate the incredible complexities that a manned mission demands of everyone involved. He hopes the film will inspire genuine enthusiasm about Mars—and maybe even inspire interest in the sciences necessary to make it happen.

Generic_Competition_Logos_Poster_300x220The Territory team was not only blown away by the creative genius of Dave Lavery and the other scientists, physicists and engineers at NASA, but delighted by their palpable excitement for being a part of the film.

And Territory’s Peter Eszenyi, who used Cinema 4D and After Effects as his main tools for CGI, notes that space is a subject close to his heart. “As a kid I was spending hours in libraries soaking up the information in books about the American and Russian space programs,” he says. “I was actively preparing to be an astronaut—to be honest I still have not fully given up on that quest. …

“[In working on the film] I did my best to stay as close to believability as possible. For example, I spent nights trying to gather more information on the solar panel arrangement of the Pathfinder, or trying to figure out how the Martian atmosphere plays with the sun. To sum it up, everyone [who] worked on this project went the extra mile to make sure what we did has some roots in real life, and has a sense of reality to it.”

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Ridley Scott – Director
Arthur Max – Production Designer
Felicity Hickson -– Motion Graphics Art Director

Creative Direction – David Sheldon-Hicks
Production – Sam Hart
Art Direction – Marti Romances
Lead CGI – Peter Eszenyi
Design and Animation – Daniel Højlund, Sam Keehan 

NASA Headquarters
Dr. Jim Green – Director, Planetary Science Division
Dave Lavery – Program Executive for Solar System Exploration
Bert Ulrich – Manager, Multi-Media Programs


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